Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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À rebours

The 1884 novel by Joris Karl Huysmans, Against the Grain, currently opens the d13 website on the “Panorama.” The website offers no explanation or context as to why the book was placed there and how it connects to the art exhibition.

In this “decadent novel” a neurotic dandy retires in his early thirties to amass a collection of exotic curiosities and a library of rare books. He makes such a magnificent wunderkammer out of his luxurious house on the outskirts of Paris that he never leaves. His agoraphobia involves a retreat that shortly becomes a total eclipse. Protagonist Des Esseintes dissolves into the frontispiece of history, internalizing the ambiance of the art gallery as homestead. This contemplative lifer, forming a one man illuminati, would seem to be at odds with the charitable image of populist knowledge-sharing at the root of biennial culture—a more open and public vehicle to curate contemporary art.

À rebours, the book’s original French title, is notoriously difficult to translate. The Documenta page contains the English version titled Against the Grain ( alternately Against Nature depending on the publisher ). Why Against the Grain and not À rebours was used on the website is also curious given the Northern European propensity towards polyglotism and the novel’s fame. Plus, the out-of-timeness of the original French really seems more appropriate for an exhibition happening only once every five years.

1903 edition with illustrations by Auguste Lèpere

1978 edition with cover illustration by Gérard Deshayes

Nonetheless, the act of arbitrarily reordering canonical sources and contesting inherited knowledge systems outside of the academy, as Against the Grain did so magnificently as a work of art, makes sense in the context of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s many intriguing explanations of Documenta 13’s exhibition themes—themes about being “worldly” not internationalist and refraining from the universalist/humanist tradition that sees the allure of the natural sciences as separate from the social, for example.

Perhaps Against the Grain is on the website as a surface image meant to be taken as an ironic gesture. Curator-Aesthetes presiding over biennials (or this quinquennial) invariably frame their exhibitions as breaks with time. Somehow, the refrain goes, letting go of the ergonomic joystick of twenty-first century individualism allows us to see our collective role in a pressing historical process. Such a relent, if it is possible for anyone other than curators, remains a decadent business in the global scheme of things. À rebours…